Back to Life in Midlife: Beating Addiction

Addictions are powerful — but so are over-40 women. Here, four stories of how maturity speeded recovery.

By Ginny Graves
Janis Robinson (Photo: Alessandra Petlin)
Facing this challenge in middle age has given me incredible strength. I feel like I could do almost anything."Gambling AddictionAmy Blackmarr, 50, went to Las Vegas for the first time about 20 years ago. "It was so exciting, like an adult fairyland: the lights, the magic, the mystery," she says. But she was a struggling writer approaching 30, so gambling didn’t exactly fit into her budget. She avoided it for a decade, until she moved to Kansas City for graduate school. A sprawling, Vegas-style casino was only 50 miles away, and she started going once a month, with a friend, and then once a week. Soon Blackmarr was going alone, playing the slot machines all night."It wasn’t about the money. It was the risk, the adrenaline, the intensity," she says. "But I knew it wasn’t healthy for me. From the beginning, I wasn’t able to leave when I thought I should. I’d set a time or money limit, but I’d never stick to it."After a year or so, Blackmarr owed $60,000 on seven credit cards, a crushing burden for a grad student bringing in about $20,000 a year writing nature essays. She figured the only way she could dig herself out was to move away, so after finishing her PhD, she fled to Georgia, near where her father lived. She worked as a librarian, hoping to write and embrace a quieter life. For nearly three years, she succeeded, but then her father — who had a heart condition, early Alzheimer’s, and bipolar disorder — began deteriorating. Blackmarr took over his care and offset the stress by gambling at the nearest casino, which was two hours away. "I’d do what I needed to do for my father, work, drive to the casino, and stay till 4:30 a.m. Then I’d go home, shower and do it all over again without having slept. I was living on adrenaline. It was crazy."In 2004, she met a musician at an open microphone night and married him a year later. "I couldn’t believe I was fortunate enough to find the right guy in my 40s," she says. She told her husband, Chase, about her gambling, and he accepted it. But because she toned down the craziness after he entered her life, she says, "I don’t think he understood what a problem it could be."In 2006, they moved to New Haven, Connecticut, so Blackmarr could enroll in Yale University’s divinity school. Within a few months, she realized that the ministry wasn’t her calling and dropped out, which made her feel like a failure. For comfort, she turned to the thing that had always made her feel better. "Chase and I started going to the nearby casinos, and within six weeks I was gambling our rent money away," she says. "The decline happened very quickly. I could feel Chase’s disappointment, feel him pulling away. He couldn’t stand to see me irrational and unable to think, which is how I got when I played slots. He stopped going with me, but he couldn’t talk me into staying home."Blackmarr’s casino highs were offset by desperate lows and a sense of hopelessness; she felt her life was completely out of her control. "I don’t think I really would have killed myself, but there were times, coming home from the casino in the wee hours, when I considered driving into the guardrail," she says. "The sense of shame, self-loathing, and disgust was almost unbearable."Knowing her marriage — and maybe her life — were at risk, she used her research skills to find a good treatment program for gamblers. She found one nearby, Problem Gambling Services. Since February 2007, Blackmarr has participated in cognitive behavior therapy sessions, which have helped her understand why she was drawn to the slots. "I had suffered a series of losses: my family sold my grandfather’s farm, which was the setting of my first book; I lost two beloved dogs; my dad was in a terrible car wreck," she says. "Gambling helped me bury the pain."Blackmarr believes that her age was an advantage in her treatment. "I was able to bring some wisdom to the process that I didn’t have when I was younger," she says. "I was determined to hang on to what really mattered to me — my marriage and my writing.""I still fight the urge to gamble, but it’s much less strong," she says, though she has had three lapses since completing treatment. She is still her father’s main caregiver — long-distance, since she’s in Connecticut and he is still in Georgia.

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